The Albanian Question At The Turn Of The 20th Century (I)

The Balkans is a term connoting peoples, cultures, and states that make up a peninsula of South-East Europe between the Black Sea, the Adriatic Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea. There are three crucial points of the Balkan’s significance from the geostrategic point of view:

  1. The territory of the Balkans is an important connection between West and Central Europe and the Near and the Middle East.
  2. Wealthy of the region’s natural resources.
  3. The region which is located betwixt the Danube River, the Black Sea and East Mediterranean is an important part of the Great European Powers’ political-military-economic strategy.[i]

The Albanians, who wrongly and for the pure political purpose proclaimed themselves to be the last pure descendants of the ancient Balkan Illyrians – the region’s aboriginal inhabitants from the Antique times of the ancient Greeks and Romans,[ii] were constantly on the road of interests of the regional big powers and nations: the Roman Empire, the Byzantium, the Slavs, the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy, etc. This fact had extremely negative consequences for the creation of an independent national state of the Albanians throughout history. Historically, the first attempt to create a kind of Albanian state was done in the 13th century by Carlo I of Naples (1227−1285) who proclaimed himself as the King of Albania. However, the first real creator of an independent state of Albania became the legendary George Castriot Skanderbeg (1405−1468, of the Serbian ethnic origin), “a father of the Albanian nation”, who, according to many Albanian historians, established a state of Albania on November 28th, 1443. However, on the other hand, there are many historians, including and of the Albanian origin, who claim that Skanderbeg established only the “Albanian league” for resistance against the Ottomans, but not a real state.[iii]

Nevertheless, after 1479, when the whole territory of present-day Albania became finally occupied by the Ottomans, the Albanians had to wait till November 28th, 1912 when a real Albania’s independence was proclaimed and in the coming years recognized by the other states. However, when Albania’s state borders were drawn in 1913 by the Great European Powers, a number of the ethnic Albanians and those who declared themselves as the Albanians as an ethnic minority were left outside of them in Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro as a result of clashes of opposite interests of both the Great European Powers and the Balkan national states in this part of the Balkan Peninsula.

Every powerful European state at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was interested in South-East Europe. A territory of Albania became a part of this interest too due to its extraordinary geostrategic importance. Therefore, for instance, Russia’s crucial driving force in her Balkan policy was the aim to acquire an exit to the “warm sea” (the Mediterranean). Germany of the Second Empire saw the territory of South-East Europe as the transversal area for its Drang nach Osten policy towards the Middle East and Central Asia. Austria-Hungary was seeking to occupy the seaport of Salonica and to establish its footholds on the territory of Albania. While Italy did not show a great interest regarding the question of Salonica, its foreign policy concerning the Albanian territory became the main obstacle for the plans of Vienna and Budapest about the “land of Skanderbeg” (Albania). Similar to the United Kingdom’s power-balance policy in Europe, France was pursuing the policy of status quo at the Balkan Peninsula.[iv]

The Serbs and the Albanian Question

From the beginning of the 19th century, there were several ideas and plans regarding the (re)creation of a national state of the Serbs – the ideas and plans which very much affected the way of solving the Albanian Question at the turn of the 20th century. Thus, the Sremski Karlovci Metropolitan Stevan Stratimirović created the idea of autonomous tributary religion-language-based Orthodox Shtokavian Slavonic–Serbian state in 1804. The state was to be governed by the Russian Grand Duke, under the Russian political-military protectorate, as well as to be only nominally included in the Ottoman Empire and to pay an annual fixed tribute to the Ottoman Sultan as its formal suzerain.

S. Stratimirović’s concept of a politically united religion-language-based Serbian nation within the borders of a single national state anticipated unification of the historical and ethnic Serbian territories from both the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Monarchy. His notion of the national identity of the Serbs was innovative at that time. In other words, he created the idea of a Serbian nation combining the criteria of language and religious principles. As a result, according to S. Stratimirović, the Serbian nation was understood as the entire Christian Orthodox South Slavic population who spoke the Shtokavian (штокавски) dialect. Subsequently, all Balkan territories settled by the Orthodox-Shtokavian South Slavs had to be included in a unified Serbian national state including Kosovo-Metochia as well as populated at that time by Serbian majority and Albanian minority.[v]

S. Stratimirović’s ideas were expressed in the Memorandum submitted to the Russian Emperor Alexander I Romanov. Produced at a pivotal time, the Memorandum was one of the major contributions to the history of the Serbian modern political doctrines and ideologies. As one of the most important national state’s projects, it was created at a critical time during the turning point in the Serbian history: at the time of the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottoman Empire (1804−1813).

There were many plans during the uprising connected with the question of the Serbian liberation and national political unification. The Memorandum was one of the most important of them.

S. Stratimirović was soon followed by a philologist Vuk Stefanović Karadžić and a stateman Ilija Garašanin who continued to further develop the ideas of the Serb national identity and plans on solving the Serbian Question at the Balkans that as well as affected the Albanian Question:

  1. V. S. Karadžić’s understanding of language in the conception of the Serbian linguistic national identity model was primarily of ethnic nature as he considered the Serbian language (the Shtokavian tongue) as the crucial integral part of the Serbian national identification.
  2. I. Garašanin drafted in 1844 his project of a united Serbian national state by implementing a linguistic model of the Serb national identification, which was earlier in 1836 developed by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić.
  3. National projects of the Serbian liberation and unification were based on the ideological constructions to consolidate all Serbs (in the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Monarchy) and to create the Serbian state, which became the chief subject in Vuk Stefanović-Karadžić’s Srbi svi i svuda (Serbs All and Everywhere) and in Ilija Garašanin’s Načertanije (Draft).[vi]
  4. Both these works have been the most meaningful and influential theory for the definition of nationhood, national idea, national aims and basis for the national policy in the future.
  5. They are written as a matter of Serb national self-defense policy against the Croat claims of the time that all the South Slavs and especially all the Roman Catholic Shtokavian speakers belong to the Croatian national corpus and as such their populated territories have to be included into a Greater Croatia.
  6. Srbi svi i svuda constructed a model of national determination based on a linguistic criterion: entire Shtokavian-speaking South-Slavic population, regardless of denominations (the Orthodox, the Roman Catholic or the Muslim), belongs to the genuine Serbdom.
  7. Načertanije composed a secret plan of Serbia’s foreign national policy based on both V. S. Karadžić’s linguistic model of national identity and historical rights of the Serbs: the creation of a unified Serbian state in the Balkans which should embrace all linguistic Serbs and all Serbian territories from both the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Monarchy including ethnically Serbian-Albanian mixed region of Kosovo-Metochia too.[vii]

The Albanian origin

The question of the ethnogenesis of the Albanians became one of the most disputable issues dealing with the Albanian Question. The Albanians believe themselves to be the last pure and direct descendants of the ancient Illyrians, the Balkan people who lived in this region before the second (returning) migration of the South Slavs to the peninsula at the turn of the 7th century AD.[viii] Many scholars consider Albanians, like the Greeks and Romanians, as the offspring population of the ancient inhabitants of the Balkan Peninsula, either the Pelasgians or the Illyrians, i.e. the population residing in this part of Europe before the Roman rule.[ix] During the mid-19th century and especially after the establishment of the Albanian national political organization the First Prizren League in 1878, the romanticist understanding of the nationhood according to the linguistic principle prevailed among the Albanian intellectuals, particularly of those who were living as emigrants in Italy.[x]

Albanian questionThe Albanian national movement of Rilindja (1878−1912)[xi] took anti-South Slavic politically-ideological orientation, which in any case cannot be considered as exclusively anti-Christian. The Albanian national identity to the great extend was derived from the confrontation with and from differences in comparison with their neighbors. The majority of the Albanian political workers from the time of Rilindja accepted the German-romanticist principle of “linguistic” nationhood and they created the notion of the Albanians that designated an ethnic group whose mother tongue was the Albanian. However, referring to linguistic features, some scholars defend the thesis that the Albanians are descendants of the Dacians inhabiting the lands south of the Danube (the Roman provinces of Moesia Superior and Moesia Inferior) and migrating southwest to the territory of present-day Albania. They claim that some serous indications refer to the Albanian ethnic origin to Dacian-Moesian root. In the first place, it is an Albanian name for themselves – Shqiptars, the word of the Dacian-Moesian origin which means the “highlanders” in the Bulgarian language.

However, the proponents of the “Illyrian” theory of Albanian ethnogenesis connected the contemporary (inter)national name for the Albanians with the Albanoi what was the name of an Illyrian tribe living in present-day North Albania, mentioned for the first time in the works of Greek geographer Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD.

Among the Albanians, numerous transformations have taken place through their historical development, which has resulted in an alternation of their ethnic entity. There are no “pure” peoples (nations) in the world and the Albanians are not “pure”, either. They are an ethnic substratum that is present in all Balkan peoples (nations). However, it is beyond doubt that the Albanians have retained the Illyrian elements in their ethnic make-up but all the peoples (nations) who lived today in West and Central Balkans have Illyrian elements too.

However, in other regions of West and Central Balkans, the Slavic element predominates. The pro-Albanian linguists claim that among the Albanians the Illyrian element is dominant, especially in the point of language. Nevertheless, this fact cannot be utilized by anybody to claim that the Albanian historical and ethnic rights on certain Balkan territories are stronger and longer than Slavic or Greek once. At this point, the Illyrian-Albanian cultural-ethnic continuation can gain a new political dimension.

Nevertheless, all of those “linguistic” theories about Albanian origin have a common scientific lack: they are based on speculations but not on any single historical evidence in a form of a historical source. Contrary to such “linguistic” theories, many Balkan historians are kin to point out that according to several existing historical sources from the Antique time and the Middle Ages, the Balkan Albanians originate, in fact, from the Caucasus where they had their own Kingdom of Albania at the time of the Alexander the Great (356−323 BC).[xii] This “historical” theory of the Caucasian ethnogenesis of the Balkan Albanians is supported even by Albanian historians like Stefang Pollo and Arben Puto.[xiii]

The 1878 Berlin Congress and the Albanian Question    

A breaking point in the development of the Albanian Question became the 1878 Berlin Congress and its decisions. The Albanian hindering to the decisions of the Great Powers at the Berlin Congress to divide the Albanian ethnic space and historic territories claimed by the Albanians as such contributed tremendously to the further development of an Albanian self-consciousness and nationalism. In the other words, the negotiations among the members of the European Concert of Great Powers that took place in 1878−1881 caused radical changes in the attitude of the Albanian political leadership but as well as of ordinary people. Both the 1878 San Stefano Treaty and the 1878 Berlin Congress assigned certain Albanian inhabited territories (but as well as Slavic and Greek ones too) to the neighboring Christian states of Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, and Bulgaria what compelled local Albanian folk to carry out self-defensive actions in the forms of guerrilla and terrorist attacks on the local Christians. This resistance was carried out and through the protests, sending various memorandums and finally by organizing the open-armed defense of claimed national territory against the unjustifiable policy of the European Great Powers towards the Albanians, as it was understood by the Albanian political leadership of the first pan-Islamic and the Muslim Albanian national-political organization: the First Prizren League (1878−1881). Subsequently, the League developed a notion among the Muslim Albanian population, regardless of their three different denominations, that the Albanian nationality of the Islamic denomination deserved an autonomous political-administrative-cultural status within reformed and remodeled Islamic Ottoman Empire. Clearly, the League had been formed primarily to defend the Islam, the Muslim Ottoman Empire and Albanian national-historic lands from their division and partition by either domestic Balkan states of foreign European powers, but it was not in agenda at that time the establishment of an independent (Islamic) Albanian state as separate from the (Muslim) Ottoman Empire.[xiv]

Shortly, foreign propaganda and pretensions of the Balkan states on the parts of Albanian populated territories on which they have been at that time minority population crucially contributed to the development of the Albanian nationalism and national movement at the end of the 19th century.[xv]

To be continued

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.


[i] See more in [Stojanović T., Balkanski svetovi: Prva i poslednja Evropa, Beograd: Equilibrium, 1997; Шушић С., Геополитички кошмар Балкана, Београд: Војна књига, 2004; Glenny M., The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers 1804−2011, New York: Penguin Books, 2012].

[ii] See, for instance [Marmullaku R., Albania and the Albanians, London: C. Hurst & Company, 1975 , 5−9].

[iii] Бартл П., Албанци: Од средњег века до данас, Београд: CLIO, 2001, 42−44.

[iv] See more details in [Wachtel B. A., The Balkans in World History, Oxford−New York, Oxford University Press, 2008].

[v] The first Albanian settlers emigrated from North Albania to Kosovo-Metochia in 1754 [Gaćinović R., „Prva Prizrenska Liga kao putokaz političkog nasilja nad Srbima u Staroj Srbiji“, Vojno delo, 3, 2019, 328].

[vi] About Serbian political thought in the 19th century, see [Симеуновић Д., Из ризнице отаџбинских идеја. Слободарски међаши наше политичке мисли 19. века, Београд: НИЦ Војска, 2000].

[vii] See more details in [Sotirović B. V., Srpski komonvelt, Vilnius: Štamparija Pedagoškog univerziteta u Viljnusu, 2011].

[viii] Деретић И. Ј., Антић П. Д., Јарчевић М. С., Измишљено досељавање Срба, Београд: Сардонија, 2009.

[ix] The theory of the Dacian origin of the modern Romanian nation got its political expression and value during the lifetime of the Romanian Greek-Catholic (Unionist) Bishop from Transylvania, Ioan Inochentie Micu-Clain (1700−1761). Fighting for the equal rights of the Romanians in Transylvania with the recognized members of the Transylvanian “political nation”, the Hungarians, Saxons, and Szecklers, Micu-Clain invoked the theory that the Romanians were the most ancient population on the territory of Transylvania, i.e. descendants of ancient Dacians and Roman colonists. His compatriot from Transylvania, the leading Romanian Greek-Catholic intellectual, George Şincai (1754−1816) accepted this theory which got its scientific explanations in his linguistic hypothesis of Dacian-Romanian ethnic-cultural symbiosis elaborated in the treatise Elementa linguae daco-romanae sive valachicae. G. Şincai was an ideological inspirer and creator of the Supplex Libellus Valachorum Transsilvaniae submitted to the Austrian Emperor Leopold II (1780−1790) in March 1791. It was a memorandum in which the Romanian intellectuals from Transylvania required political and social rights for Transylvanian Romanians claiming that the Daco-Romanians are the autochthonous inhabitants of this Austrian province. He used as evidence the Chronicle of the Anonymous, a notary of Hungarian medieval King Bela, discovered in 1746. Finally, the theory of Daco-Romanian ethnogenesis became the leading ideological background for the 19th and 20th century Romanian politicians to demand political unification of all “Romanian historical and ethnic lands”: Wallachia, Oltenia, Moldavia, Dobrodgea, Bessarabia, Transylvania, Bucovina, Maramures, Banat, and Crisana.

[x] About the Albanian League of Prizren from the political perspective of Albanian historiography, see in more detail in [Pollo S., The Albanian League of Prizren 1878−1881, Tirana, 1978].

[xi] Rilindja means the Renaissance.

[xii] The focal historical source in this matter is one by the Byzantine chronicler Michael Ataliota [Ataliota M., Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, Bonn: Weber, 1853, 18].

[xiii] Pollo S., Puto A., The History of Albania, London−Boston−Hebley: Routledge−Kegan, 1981, 37.

[xiv] About the Islamic essence of the Albanian nationalism in the Balkans and secessionism in Kosovo-Metochia, see in [Јевтић М., „Исламска суштина албанског сецесионизма и културно наслеђе Срба“, Национални интерес, 2, 2013, 231−252].

[xv] Within the boundaries of a single “Albanian” province in the Ottoman Empire, as it was required by the First Prizren League to be composed by four Ottoman provinces (of Kosovo, Ioannina, Bitola, and Scutari), there were 44% of ethnic Albanians out of total population [Gaćinović R., „Prva Prizrenska Liga kao putokaz političkog nasilja nad Srbima u Staroj Srbiji“, Vojno delo, 3, 2019, 334].

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    1. Dypakaveli

      1) Caucasus thesis is controversial.
      2) We have Illyria Graeca, (and still now have a small village named Grecë near Tiranë). Croatia were some “barbarian illyrians”
      3) Epirus thesis is the most reliable one, (not all tribes – only those above Preveza near Ambracian Gulf).
      2b continuing/ or not.
      Just a picture from 1878 can’t tell us much, and you can’t call an anti-christian movement, for the fact that even in time of Scanderbeg when we were in “top form” in aspect of military power, we had massive conversion into catholic in massive mass. And we have good religion relationships since Karl Anzhu (Luis brother) named firstly himself King of Albania then King of Jeruzalem and we had good cooperation between both religions. That’s tha reason why we had the strategic occupation of Ottomans in Ballkan,( named before 1878 just Illyrian Peninsula ) and that’s tha reason why we still have good coopetation till now.

    2. Caucasus thesis on Balkan Albanian origins is the single one based on historical documents.
      Epirus thesis is totally controversal and anti-Greek in essence.
      Illyrians are South Slavs nothing to do with (Caucasus) Albanians.
      The whole history of Balkan Albanians is politicized and fake.

    3. Is it fake because you want to be so, Or not, then keep wwritting.

    4. Study and learn. For amateurs no losing time

    5. Where is the proof that Albanians from the Caucuses? Sounds laughable, and more like biased partisanship. Language studies and genetics don’t support this. They may not be illyrians as claimed but what proof they are caucus?

    6. To Troan

      You obviously did not properly red the article!!! Author answered your question in endnote:

      Ataliota M., Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, Bonn: Weber, 1853, 18

    7. Carnex, your past comments reveal you to be a Serbian nationalist so I won’t waste too much time, but it’s obvious that Albanians were tribesman who migrated from mountains nearby, at least linguistics studies prove. The Caucus theory holds no weight. Neither linguistic or ethnic studies, link me something non-partisan and not written nearly 170 years ago lol. Sotirović makes explosive comments because no one on here would challenge him.

    8. To Carnex

      Your a Serbian nationalist judging by your other comments, so I’ll be brief considering you won’t be swayed. The source Sotrovic provided is from 1853. Linguistic studies suggest that Albanians originated close by in Balkan mountains and borrowed Greek words very early on. There is no ethnic or linguistic proof regarding this foolish Caucus theory. Sotrovic knows he wont be challenged by anyone else so hence he doesn’t even have to find anything from this century.

    9. BU Student

      To Troan

      You are surely Albanian nationalist who is forgering Balkan history. Albanians are from Caucasus Albania arrived to the Balkans in mid-11th century. Several relevant Byzantine and Arab sources tell that and no one direct sorce tells that Balkan Albanians are descentents of Balkan Illyrians.

    10. BU Student

      Name these sources and I shall name the linguistic studies/genetic studies that prove you wrong. Surely you can’t be that stupid?

    11. mm Vladislav B. SOTIROVIĆ, Ph.D.

      Those linguistic/genetic studies are based only on pure pro-Albanian propaganda but not on any relevant historical source.

      The focal counter-Albanian propaganda historical source is: Michael Ataliota [Ataliota M., Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, Bonn: Weber, 1853, 18].

      The Caucasian theory of Albanian origin based on this source is even officially recognized by Albanian historians of course in emigration like: Pollo S., Puto A., The History of Albania, London−Boston−Hebley: Routledge−Kegan, 1981, 37.

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